Words by Adam Kaye :: Images by Josh Mishell
Yonder Mountain String Band
02.03 :: Meridian :: Houston, TX & 02.04 :: La Zona Rosa :: Austin, TX
"You saw the same band two nights in a row?!?"
If you're ever faced with this question, recommend that your inquiring friend or family member listen to Yonder Mountain String Band's 02.03.06 and 02.04.06 shows and get back with you.
Last weekend, for the first time in a year, Nederland, Colorado's Yonder Mountain String Band visited Texas for a quick two-step in Houston and Austin, and the experiences were like night and day. Friday night in Houston was a textbook example of how not to treat your audience or the performers that you're seeing, and Saturday night in Austin felt like a four-hour love-fest among everybody present. Of course a bad night of Yonder isn't exactly like the honky-tonk scene from The Blues Brothers, just a whole lot closer to that than the average night for these guys.
YMSB :: Texas
Friday night's show in Houston took place exactly 364 days after their last visit to the very same room, and it was obvious the majority of those in attendance were there last year as well, judging by the number of times the fact was mentioned. Meridian was a fairly deceiving venue. From the outside, it's an ugly warehouse in a semi-industrial area not far from downtown. Walk up the exterior stairs and past the ticket-taker, and you're transported to an equally sketchy club that's a combination of Road House and the pool hall from Dazed and Confused. But as you walk through the skinny hallway and into the actual music venue, you see a much nicer room with multiple bars around the outside of the floor. Look closely and you could tell it was basically a converted airport hangar, but for our purposes, it did just fine. Through the windows, you could see highways and an adult DVD store, which is the case through many windows in Houston.
The setlist had the boards excited the next morning, but there was definitely something lacking between the band and the fans in attendance. Perhaps it was the end of the long work week, but the crowd just didn't seem to be feeding the band with the energy that they're used to receiving. And while the band closed both sets in impressive fashion, that wasn't until after they had spent too much time acknowledging the fact that something seemed to be missing. The band members spoke in terms of "You" and "Us" and made no secret of the fact that the inter-band/crowd magic on which our scene thrives was desperately lacking from the night's festivities. At one point, lead mandolin and nutty professor Jeff Austin said, "We'll keep digging it. You keep pushing us in," accompanied by a shovel motion. And Dave Johnston spoke of his mostly feigned concern about being shot onstage by a lover's scorned ex-boyfriend in response to somebody foolishly attempting to climb onto the stage.
Adam Aijala :: Texas
The first set opened with the steady build-up of "Years With Rose" and included high-energy covers of Dylan's "Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" and Willie Nelson's "Good Hearted Woman." Playing Willie in Texas is as much of a sure thing as "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in Seattle or "Franklin's Tower" at The Fillmore, and this tune definitely drew the loudest response from the lackadaisical crowd. But the highlight of the set was easily the set-closing "Dear Prudence," which was sandwiched in the middle of "If There's Still Ramblin' in the Rambler (let him go)." Dave Johnston's unique banjo playing seemed to be filling spaces in between the notes usually reserved for that instrument, and Austin's hyper-energetic lead vocals really tied everything together.
The second set opened with a really nice version of "No Expectations" but seemed to lag a little until "Snow on the Pines," which featured an extended disco break led by Ben Kaufmann's bass. "Snow on the Pines" stopped on a dime, and then the opening notes of Pink Floyd's "Goodbye Blue Sky" slid over the crowd. Considering Yonder's instrumentation, it was a bit of a surprise to see how closely their version resembled the original. They returned quickly for an encore of "Steep Grade Sharp Curves" and Danny Barnes's "Crow Jane" and didn't let the door hit them in the back on the way out.
Ben Kaufmann :: Texas
For the Yonder faithful, Saturday afternoon included a nice drive to Austin for the night's show at La Zona Rosa. While the trip takes less than three hours, you might as well have arrived in another country. The landscape is green and hilly instead of flat and paved over, and the people are, how do you say, chiller. Unfortunately, La Zona Rosa is no less like an airport hangar than Meridian, but the energy flowing between the individuals in the room made it difficult to notice you were dancing inside a building that could have once been a Dollar Store.
From the first note, everything about Saturday night's show was better than the night before – everything except for the fact that the band couldn't stop talking about how bad Houston had been to them. Houston was obviously a traumatic experience for the Yonder fellas, and they responded by pouring their hearts into Austin's show. Even before they picked up their instruments, they spoke of Houston "kicking our ass" and one of them acknowledged, "We need to be more friendly." As to whether the crowd was going to do a better job of responding to and feeding the band, that fact was made clear immediately after the first song when Drunkford McTastic exclaimed, "Come On, Baby!" at the top of his lungs. A slower number, "Sometimes I've Won," wasn't supposed to work according to Kaufmann, but it went over great. The next highlight was "Idaho," during which the band's handsome harmonies came to the foreground.
Midway through the first set, Two High String Band's Billy Bright (mandolin) stepped in to share the spotlight and remained onstage until the end of the set. This double mandolin attack produced some fast and fun jamming without anybody stepping on toes or crowding anybody out of the sound. Bright's addition meant a focus on bluegrass, and the crowd ate it up. Danny Barnes's wacky "Fun Time" and Bill Monroe's classic "Kentucky Mandolin" were clean and bright before they closed the set with "On the Run" > "Death Trip" > "On the Run."
Jeff Austin :: Texas
The second set was tons of fun, and it seemed to last and last. It started patient and nice with "Nothing But Nothing" and "River," which is on the new live Mountain Tracks 4 along with the Talking Heads' "Girlfriend Is Better." Many reached nirvana during "Keep On Going" > (Neil Young's) "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" > "Keep On Going," like the flip-flopped tripper dancing so fast his feet couldn't keep up and his buddy who hit the ground next to him when he fell to keep him from feeling too embarrassed. The segment was dedicated to Split Lip Rayfield's Kirk Rundstrom, and he would have loved every minute of it if he had been in town for it. Another Willie cover, "Bloody Mary Morning," elicited hoots and hollers before Billy Bright was invited back out for "Sonny's Ride," "Picture In A Tear," and "Peace of Mind." The pretty and mellow "Holding" closed the set before a relatively quick "Two Hits and the Joint Turned Brown" encore sent everybody back to their cars with a plan for the ride home.
There's something about this band that feels really comfortable. Their youthful energy and goofy demeanor make you want to say, "I'll have what they're having." As for the "off" night in Houston, that's to be expected once in a while when you're playing 90-100 shows a year. These guys need mountains nearby, and who can blame them? It costs a lot of money to get a bus and all of their equipment down here, and no matter where they're headed next (Tampa, Florida in this case), it's a long way from here. Though they might not always make it obvious, the music fans down here really appreciate bands going to the trouble. And if the magic ever isn't there, there's always tomorrow night's show.
JamBase | Texas
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